It’s that time of year again – women have now essentially ‘stopped earning’ due to the 15.7 per cent gender pay gap. While the gap narrowed by around a third between the late 90s and 2010 in the UK, it is escalating once again and this year Equal Pay Day arrived three days earlier than last. In the Fabian Review last week, Paulina Jakubec noted that women earn less than men regardless of the qualifications they hold – around £5,000 less on average than men in comparable jobs, according to the Guardian. In a similar vein, the Telegraph commented that at the current rate, equal economic participation levels in the UK would not be reached until 2095; the UK, which ranked 9th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report in 2006, has plummeted to 26th place.
Such widespread publicity on the issue of gender parity is more than welcome. However, the national conversation surrounding this year’s Equal Pay Day has inadvertently downplayed the vital importance of a repeatedly overlooked group – Britain’s ‘middle generation’ of women past childbearing age.
In the past week, many commentators have chosen to focus a number of issues including childcare as a major underlying cause of this gender disparity – particularly the framing of childcare as a ‘female’ responsibility and the concomitant wage penalty that working mothers incur relative to childless women. Indeed, mothers are often perceived as less committed to and less competent at their jobs, allegedly costing them around £423,390 over their lifetimes. These are certainly vital issues that require addressing – as the CBI’s important declarations surrounding free childcare this week have demonstrated. But what about the different set of barriers facing older women?
Far more attention should have been brought to the fact that the gender pay gap is twice as large for women in their 50s as it is for women as a whole. Women in their 50s and 60s regularly face multiple discrimination in the workplace. Research conducted by the TUC has found that despite a reduction in the last thirty years in the disadvantages faced by women overall, new disadvantages associated with being a woman aged over 50 years emerged over the same period. Older women have not benefited in the same way as younger women regarding income or employment opportunities. Unlike men, who tend to earn more in their fifties than they do in their thirties, women in their fifties earn decidedly less than women in their thirties. This double-discrimination increases as women age. Whereas the average salary for women over 50 is around £15,000, women over 60 receive less than £11,000 per year.
Older women likewise face disadvantages in terms of occupational status, contract-type and incidences of unemployment or ‘inactivity’. Not only are older women more likely to be employed in administrative or secretarial roles than men or younger women, they are also more likely to hold part-time or fixed term contracts, with lower associated benefits and job security. They are among the first to be made redundant, and the last to be re-hired.
Furthermore, Labour’s Commission on Older Women has found women in this age bracket to be the most prevalent demographic among the economically inactive, despite their preference for paid work. This is in large part due to multiple caring responsibilities, which are inadequately recognised or supported by government policy. On one end of the spectrum, due to the high cost of childcare this generation of women are frequently the first in line to look after grandchildren. At the other end, they may be responsible for helping to care for elderly and frail relatives. These care duties can significantly limit their ability to remain in gainful employment or to progress further in their chosen careers.
To tackle these inequalities, the next Equal Pay Day should be used to lobby both the government and UK businesses to recognise both gender and age discrimination where it exists. While efforts to eradicate the gender pay gap are vital, it would be a serious oversight to acknowledge inter-gender inequalities without addressing intra-gender discrimination.
This is necessary because the economic participation of older women is an effective way to raise GDP and tax revenue whilst simultaneously improving wellbeing, fostering social inclusion and promoting ‘active ageing’ – a strategy designed to address the global challenge of ageing populations.
There have been a number of viable policy options suggested by the TUC and the Commission on Older Women. For starters, government could expand access to flexible working hours, extend family care leave to grandparents, and immediately implement the Equality Act that contains provisions to fight double discrimination.
Several other measures should also be considered: the provision of training opportunities by employers for parents (predominantly women) who take time out of the labour market to care for children to help them ‘catch up’ with those who remain in employment, and a care leave period designed exclusively for elderly caring responsibilities. Starting with an open discussion about the often-unrecognised concessions that many women over a certain age make on behalf of others, these measures would go one step towards narrowing the gender/age gap that is steadily on the rise.